The president of the Rabbinical Council of America this week issued a rebuke to a colleague for making comments that appeared to compare The Jewish Week to Der Sturmer, the official and virulently anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper.
Rabbi Leonard Matanky of Chicago, president of the major Orthodox rabbinic group in the U.S., spoke out against comments written by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a member of the organization’s executive committee and rabbi of the 800-member Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, N.J.,
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Matanky said: “I am pained that I have to distance myself from a colleague, but the kind of language that Rabbi Pruzansky used is unacceptable and crosses the line of decency and discourse.”
He noted that if a non-Jew had used such language “we would be up in arms. It simply cannot be condoned, especially coming from a rabbi.”
The Nazi reference appeared in a personal blog by Rabbi Pruzansky that took strong exception to The Jewish Week’s reporting on his recent decision to step down as head of the Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, N.J. He said his move was not prompted by the fact that women were appointed to a new RCA committee to oversee the group’s conversion process and that he had made his decision before the composition of the committee was known.
The Jewish Week article quoted from Rabbi Pruzansky’s blog — he declined to be interviewed — which said “the committee consists of six men and five women, bolstering the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical functions for women.” He questioned whether there is “a role for women to play” in reviewing the conversion process, which he described as “a purely rabbinical role.”
In an updated post, the rabbi insisted that his decision was not based on women being on the committee but rather on the likelihood that it will “water down the standards” for conversion.
The committee was formed in the wake of the arrest last month of Rabbi Barry Freundel in Washington, D.C., charged with videotaping women undressing to use the mikvah.
Rabbi Pruzansky also was upset that a phrase in The Jewish Week story said he “shared the company” of Rabbi Freundel on the RCA executive committee. He felt it implied that he was “somehow … connected to the alleged malfeasance in D.C.”
The phrase was not intended to suggest that Rabbi Pruzansky was personally involved in the scandal. While The Jewish Week apologized for the phrase in an Editorial last week, it also pointed out that Rabbi Freundel and Rabbi Pruzansky were politically aligned in an unprecedented effort to challenge the RCA’s slate of officers in an off-year election in 2012. They called for the group to resist more open approaches to Orthodoxy. In a bitterly contested election, Rabbi Pruzansky was the only one of the 16 challengers to win a slot; he was elected to the executive committee, where he now serves.
Rabbi Pruzansky, on a subsequent blog entry entitled “Gary Rosenblatt Lies. Now He Should Apologize,” personalized his attack on The Jewish Week editor and publisher, quoting an anonymous “astute observer” who charged that the publisher “never met a feminist, especially an ‘Orthodox’ one, he hasn’t tripped over his shoes running to worship. Likewise, he’s never met an Orthodox rabbi, especially ones that ignore him, that he hasn’t tried to vilify.”
(Rosenblatt is the son and grandson of Orthodox rabbis and a member of an Orthodox synagogue.)
Rabbi Pruzansky wrote of The Jewish Week: “They should apologize. But, I guess, to follow their way of reporting, both The Jewish Week’s publisher and Julius Streicher [Der Sturmer] published newspapers that dealt a lot with Jews. Same business, I suppose. That’s bad company to be in.”
After a request from RCA leadership, Rabbi Pruzansky removed the “Nazi” paragraph from the blog (though he did not note the change at the time) and insisted he did not mean to compare The Jewish Week to Der Sturmer. “Heaven forefend,” he wrote. “There is no comparison.”
In a third entry on the subject, posted Tuesday and entitled “The Last Word: Gary Rosenblatt Still Lies,” Rabbi Pruzansky said he used an allusion to the Holocaust only to show the flaws in The Jewish Week’s journalism, not to call The Jewish Week a Nazi paper.
“[A]llow me to state unequivocally that Gary Rosenblatt is not a Nazi, and the Jewish Week is not Der Sturmer,” he wrote. “The Jewish Week is adept at a modern form of yellow journalism, in which the use of commonality as comparison is rampant, in which lies are wantonly published and in which targets – especially Orthodox Rabbis, Orthodox Jews and the Holy Torah – are routinely assailed.”
Rabbi Matanky declined to engage in the particulars of the controversy. “This is not an issue about a disagreement or freedom of the press or who got the story right,” he said. “It’s about a rabbi’s use of rhetoric and language that crossed the line of decency.”
Rabbi Pruzansky, in his 20th year at Bnai Yeshurun, is no stranger to controversy. He is widely admired by many of his congregants as bright, learned, articulate, witty, firm in his convictions and a caring pastoral leader. But he is also known for his sharp tongue and strongly held opinions, with little tolerance for those who disagree with him.
RCA members appear divided on Rabbi Pruzansky, with some calling for his removal from the executive committee. Critics maintain that he is in violation of the RCA’s own statement on ethical conduct: “We will do our utmost to ensure that Orthodox organizations gain a reputation for ‘menchlichkeit’ [humanity] and strict adherence to moral and ethical standards that we espouse in our learning and our teaching.”
Others support the rabbi’s viewpoints, if not his language and style.
In a letter to his rabbinic colleagues last Thursday, Rabbi Matanky made reference to the controversy and wrote: “I implore all of our members that as role models of Torah behavior we must always adhere to the rabbinic dictum of ‘chachamim hizaharu bidivreichem’ [wise men, be careful with your words]. This is even more important at this unfortunate time when the kavod [honor] of our profession has been tarnished and rabbis find themselves under ever-increasing scrutiny.”
Amy Sara Clark and Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.